"It's just going to become one giant CVS!" — Katelyn Smith (right) on the future of Harvard Square

Credit: Howard Powell / WGBH News

How Much Change Can Harvard Square Handle?

January 11, 2017

For two decades, Tealuxe has served a dizzying assortment of loose-leaf teas in a funky, mellow space right in Harvard Square’s epicenter.

“When you come in here, you can kind of step out of the bustle that is Harvard Square and shut down for a little while,” Jennifer Fryar, Tealuxe’s manager, says.

But Tealuxe may not be around much longer. Back in 2015, New York development company Equity One bought the building that houses the tea house and two neighboring properties. Now it’s planning a major renovation that could drive Tealuxe and other longtime residents out.

“If this development went through, we’d be gone,” Fryar says. “We’d be kicked out. If we tried to stay, our rent would be hiked up to a point where we couldn’t afford it."

The proposal has sparked a backlash, with critics warning that Harvard Square’s soul is slowly dying.

“I really liked that there were a lot of independent shops,” says Tealuxe patron Katelyn Smith, who first got to know the square several years ago as an undergraduate at Harvard College. “Now there’s like two CVSs. It’s going to just become one giant CVS!”

The anxiety is about more than this one development — in recent years, Harvard Square has seen a bevy of other big changes. The Mass. Ave. Au Bon Pain featured in Good Will Hunting is gone, leaving a hole in the neighborhood’s heart. Also departing or departed: the Tasty, Sage’s Market, Bow and Arrow bar, Greenhouse Café, and the Harvard Square movie theater.

“It’s sad,” longtime Harvard Square denizen David Prum laments. “It’s hollowing out.”

But here’s the caveat: According to Charlie Sullivan of the Cambridge Historical Commission, to know Harvard Square at all is to believe that it’s not what it used to be.

“One of the unique features of Harvard Square is that people fall in love with it the way it was when they first saw it,” Sullivan says. “Often that’s as a new undergraduate, but it could be later in life ... They think it’s wonderful, and they want to maintain that character as strongly as they possibly can.”

Sometimes, Sullivan adds, one person’s glorious past is another person’s bastardized present. Case in point: the bygone Au Bon Pain came into being thanks to the construction of Harvard University’s massive Holyoke Center, which many viewed as a monstrous mistake.

“There were about a dozen buildings on that block in the 1950s that ranged from very elaborate private dormitories built in the 19th century, to former street-railway car barns, to taverns,” Sullivan says. “Those were all wiped away when Holyoke Center occupied that as a superblock.”

Still, Sullivan adds, recent years have seen a big spike in turnover, with longtime landlords selling properties at an unusually brisk clip.

It’s a trend that troubles Nina Hovagimian, the owner of the venerable Café Pamplona — an artsy haunt known, among other things, for being the first location in the square to boast an espresso machine.

“When we bought this place 10, 11 years ago, there were no big chains — Harvard and Cambridge would say, ‘We don’t want the big chains in Harvard Square,’” Hovagimian says. “Within the last 10 years, things obviously have changed.

“I think about it all the time. It’s very hard to stay open. it’s very hard to pay the bills."

While the Harvard Square Business Association says a robust 70 percent of Square establishments are locally owned, comments like Hovagimian’s — and the increasing prominence of national outfits like Starbucks and Shake Shack — bring to mind a future Harvard Square in which the only tenants who can afford to pay the rent are the same national chains you see everywhere else.

Which doesn’t mean newcomers to the neighborhood wouldn’t make their own memories. They just might not be as distinctive as they use to be.


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